Yoga Made Easy by Music: How Kirtan Works

October 14th, 2010

(Kirtan refers to devotional singing, but it also refers to the recitation of spiritual poetry and drama or even just speaking about spiritual subjects. In the school of Śrī Caitanya, when devotional singing is done in a group with musical accompaniment it is specifically called sankirtan; the prefix “san” comes from samyak, which means “complete”. It is called sankirtan, or complete, as the group experience of kirtan is more absorbing and moving than the individual one. For the purpose of distinguishing group from individual kirtan, when I refer to devotional singing and music in a congregation I will use the word “sankirtan”, although it is commonly known as just kirtan.)

I was happy to read that “sankirtan (chanting with others) is superior even to kirtan (chanting alone) because it produces such extraordinary feelings”.[1] That has always been my conviction, but here was a declarative statement by Śrī Jiva Gosvāmī, one of the greatest Vaiṣṇava scholars in his classic work Śrī Bhakti Sandarbha.

Although I was happy to find a supportive statement for the magnificence of sankirtan, the question still remained, why? Why does sankirtan produce such extraordinary feelings? Luckily the answer came soon. While thumbing casually through a book containing the personal correspondence of my spiritual master, Śrīla Prabhupāda, I chanced upon the following statement:

“The hearing tendency is made easy and still more favorable by songs and music of spiritual value to be equally shared by all classes of men namely the highest educated and the lowest illiterate.” [2]

The answer was simple and clear: “hearing made easy by music!” The test of any meditational practice is its ability to facilitate focus on the object of one’s mediation, usually a mantra that is heard. As proper melody and rhythm spontaneously allure the mind, mantra couched in music naturally makes mantra meditation easier. And as the focus in sankirtan is the very object of the practitioner’s devotion (the divine names of God), extraordinary feelings, such as devotion and joy, naturally arise as one’s meditation deepens.

The power of music is not the only reason why sankirtan invokes more astonishing feelings than chanting alone. Being inspired by the reference about sankirtan from Śrī Jiva, I delved further into why this practice is considered exceptional. As bhakti and kirtan are the main components of sankirtan, I naturally began my study there.

Bhagavad-gītā clearly distinguishes bhakti as the topmost yoga.[3] It also implies why:

In bhakti, the object of meditation is Brahman (the Divine) designated in divine names such as Rāma and Kṛṣṇa, which are considered non-different from Brahman. Thus unlike in classical yoga where to quell the mind one chooses an arbitrary object as a prop for meditation, the bhakta selects an object of loving relationship. Consequently, the bhakta is spontaneously drawn to meditation out of faith and devotion, rather than will-power alone, making it the best means of focusing the mind.

Furthermore, the Divine names as an object of meditation are alive and personal. They thus can reciprocate the practitioner’s devotion by bestowing the desired fruits of practice, even samādhi, which is the final goal. Because in bhakti the fruits of devotional meditation can even exceed the practitioner’s yogic effort, bhakti is therefore called the path of grace and highly praised.

As mentioned above, the use of songs and music in mantra meditation is deemed particularly powerful, even within the path of bhakti. Why? Among sense objects sound is considered particularly absorbing, and especially gripping in good music. The mind is thus naturally allured to the designated mantra embedded in musical sounds. In addition, the melodies, or rāgas, accompanying kirtan are composed to stir devotional feelings, which are the very force behind the bhakta’s meditation.

Attraction to music is imbedded deep within the psyche. Many great thinkers affirm this. Plato in The Republic, for example, recommended that a child’s education be mostly composed of good music to harmonize or spiritualize the mind. Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartī, a prominent 17th century Vaiṣṇava scholar, went even further. In his commentary on Kṛṣṇa’s famous midnight dance with the cowherd maidens (the gopīs) of Vṛndāvan, he described the number of melodies the gopīs sang as one for every 16,000 species of life, implying the innate connection between the essential nature of each species and a particular melody. It is precisely this instinctive connection between tune and being that so powerfully weds mantra and music in the heart and mind of the chanter and makes the experience of sankirtan so potent.

Still it is not the resource of music alone that elevates sankirtan over even other practices of bhakti. The full capacity to evoke grace, the power of group petition and the superiority of shared bliss are also enhancing characteristics of sankirtan.

For the followers of Śrī Caitanya, the inaugurator of the sankirtan movement, perhaps there is no greater reason why sankirtan is considered so effective than the grace it attracts to help one advance on the path of bhakti.

As the inaugurator of the sankirtan movement, Śrī Caitanya is glorified in Caitanya-bhāgavata as sankirtaṇaika-pitarau, the father of sankirtan. The best way to please the father is to serve his son. Śrī Caitanya’s followers therefore trust that by wholeheartedly giving oneself to that which is born of Śrī Caitanya (sankirtan), they will gain His blessings. This is strongly the culture and philosophy of traditional India: by honoring the predecessors of one’s tradition, the power of what they exemplified, practiced and taught flows to one’s heart. The fullest manifestation of Śrī Caitanya’s teachings is prema (divine love), which manifests to those fully absorbed in the sankirtan of the holy names born from Him.

The Bhāgavata gives another interesting perspective on the efficacy of sankirtan in its description of the events leading to Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s advent. The story begins with Mother Earth in the form of a distressed cow tearfully approaching the chief executive of the universe, Lord Brahma. She seeks relief from the burden of the increasing number of militaristic rulers plundering her planet. Concerned, Lord Brahmā, accompanied by Śiva and all the demigods, leaves for the sacred milk ocean to petition the Lord’s advent. One commentator rhetorically questions why Lord Brahmā brought such an entourage of luminaries with him, when he was perfectly qualified to gain direct access to the Lord by the purity of his own prayer. [4] The answer: Lord Brahmā was instructing by example that in prayer, all things being equal, group petition is more powerful than individual prayer. Bhakti is the path of entreaty. Accordingly, sankirtan, the kirtan of collective appeal, invokes extraordinary feelings of grace and delight.

Ideally in sankirtan all qualified participants share in the musical devotional offering, especially the sentiments being expressed. As they are shared they tend to be more intense. This type of phenomena can be clearly seen in drama. One purpose of good theater is catharsis, the literary effect where the audience (or the characters) is overcome with the strong emotion of the drama, a shared experience that uplifts the audience in a unique way. Abhinavagupta, one of Indian’s most respected theorists on mystical and aesthetic experience writes extensively on the necessity for the experience of rāsa to be in the company of like-minded souls. He even went so far as to say that the fullness of joy in theatre and mysticism occurs only when every participant fully shares the experience.[5]

One of my favorite examples of this is the scene describing the day Śrī Caitanya left home to take sannyāsa. He is effulgently sitting amongst His devotes who remain unaware that their master will leave in the evening. His splendid form is covered with the many exquisite garlands his associates have piled with love around his neck. Fresh sandalwood paste has also been affectionately patted across his forehead. Their unbounded bliss reaches its height as “they gazed upon him as if with a single pair of eyes!”

For this reason, the power of shared feelings and extraordinary devotional emotions tend to increase in communal kirtan.

I remember a kirtan I joined one summer evening in 1986 in the Indian town of Farrukhabad where the accomplished B.B. Govinda Swami was leading our sankirtan group in the town’s annual Rāma Bharata procession. Almost one million people from the district lined the streets for this yearly commemoration of the wedding of Sītā and Rāma. I could barely stand the heat on this muggy August day, but it was the portable lanterns on the heads of the dozens of coolies walking by our side to light our way that created an especially intolerable setting. One can’t imagine how many bugs even a single lantern attracts on a muggy summer night in India! The Swami is not an ordinary kīrtanīyā. As a child he grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, the son of a famous music agent. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash regularly frequented his house and often held him on his lap. Anyway, whatever soul he imbibed from his birth was later channeled into kirtan in his youth. In the early 70s he became a devotee of Kṛṣṇa and lived in Vṛndāvan at the feet of some of the greatest kirtan masters. On that muggy night in August his sweet, powerful, melodious kirtan accompanied by a host of expert Bengali and African American mṛdaṅga players was exceptionally potent. I remember it well. Due to my discomfort, when it began all I could think of was, “when will this end!” Shortly, however, the mantra, the melody, the rhythm, the camaraderie and the grace, sent us to another world, as it did the throngs of Indian villagers lining the streets. I closed my eyes and absorbed myself in the sankirtan. What seemed a relatively short time later I opened them. It was five in the morning! I was startled! “How did that happen?” I pondered. Now I know: Yoga made easy by music!



[1] Śrī Bhakti Sandarbha, Anuchheda 269

[2] Correspondence of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, letter to Seth Mangumal Amarsingh, Bombay 24 July, 1958

[3] Śrī Kṛṣṇa says in Bhagavad-gītā 6.47 ‘Of all yogis one who worships me with faith and devotion is the best of all.’

[4] The Absolute Reality is called Brahman, which can manifest in various ways. When the Absolute Reality is fully manifest in sound (śabda), it is called śabda brahman, sound, which is Absolute Reality.

[5] See Acting as a Way of Salvation, David Haberman, p. 16-29

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